Trust me

Dr Kay Kimber, Director of the Centre for Professional Practice

My focus for professional reading this year was sparked by my observation of the frequent mention of ‘trust’ in the media and collegial conversations. My early musings turned to literature: how King Duncan’s trust in Macbeth was misguided to say the least; how E.M. Forster’s Lucy Honeychurch could not trust herself to know her own heart. My delving into a wider literature field, however, has revealed trust to be not just a core value, but also a key concept for marketing and scientific research.

If asked to define trust, people might cite confidence in another’s ability to deliver whatever had been promised. They might just ‘feel’ that the other person can be trusted or ‘know’ that someone can be consistently relied upon to respect confidentiality or complete a designated request. Comments might refer to a person’s level of trustworthiness, integrity or character. Stephen R. Covey (2004) of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and The 8th Habit: From effectiveness to greatness fame, explained trust metaphorically as ‘the key to all relationships’ (loc.cit. 2617), ‘the glue that holds organizations, cultures, and relationships together’ (loc.cit. 2618), and ‘the root of motivation’ (loc.cit. 2960).  Core to these understandings of people or organisations is evidence of their credibility and reliability.

In an interview for Forbes magazine on the publication of The Speed of Trust: the one thing that changes everything, Stephen M. R. Covey (2008a) explained that ‘trust and credibility are like two sides of the same coin’, but ‘credibility is actually the foundation on which all trust is built’, first ‘through your credibility and then your behavior’ (p. 1).  For him, transparency was an important component of trust and the key to transforming low-trust situations into high-trust ones, especially in organisations: ‘Leaders are rediscovering trust as they see it with new eyes. Looking beyond the common view of trust as a soft social virtue, they’re learning to see it as a critical, highly relevant, performance multiplier.’ (Covey, 2008b, p. 1). The ‘performance multiplier’ perspective explains why businesses might come to rely on trust consultants like the Coveys or Trusted Advisor (Green, 2000), designers of strategies to aid organisations leverage trust for greater productivity or profitability. From Covey’s ‘Self trust™ and the 4 cores of credibility™’ (2008b) to Green’s ‘Trust Equation’,  promoted as ‘a deconstructive, analytical model of trustworthiness that can be … used to help yourself and your organization’ (Green, 2000, p. 1), credence is given to the notion of trust as an economic driver, not just a personal core value. Establishing (or losing) consumer trust can cost businesses dearly, hence the marketability of trust-building.

Scientific research into trust
Innovative research has revealed fascinating findings about trust and trustworthiness. Social psychologist David DeSteno (2014a, b, c) and his interdisciplinary team have been identifying the metrics by which the human mind infers the trustworthy intentions (or lack thereof) of others. Using behavioural economics, social robotics, and automated pattern detection, the team has been able to identify how ‘the mechanisms of our minds [might] allow us not only to mispredict our future behavior but also whitewash our past actions’ (2014a, p. 1). From isolating several components of trust, trustworthiness and deceit, his team suggests that the ability to ‘navigate the minefield of trust’ (p. 1) is one of life’s most valuable assets.

DeSteno’s research findings on both the economics of trust and the biology of trust point to its instability. Several experiments using game-playing principles required subjects to vye with a partner for small sums of money or make choices of activities from rolling a dice, pitting self-interest against co-operation (DeSteno, 2014b). The team found that ninety per cent of their reputedly trustworthy subjects would negotiate more money for themselves or rethrow the dice multiple times (or lie) until they ‘won’ the ten-minute activity, forcing their supposed partner in another room to complete the forty-five minute chore.  DeSteno (2014c, p. 3) claimed that everyone weighs up short-term versus long-term gains when deciding to trust another and the mind’s computations occur without conscious control or awareness. Such research findings lead us to speculate on just how confidently we can say, ‘Trust me’.

Turning to the biology of trust, neuroception has been identified as an additional mind-processing mechanism for individuals to assess threats. Research ‘to understand the evolutionary origins of fairness, trust and co-operation’ (De Steno, 2014b, loc.cit. 766) repeatedly confirmed that chimpanzees and capuchins not only recognised unfair allocation of treats, but also appeared to grow quite indignant. This finding prompted DeSteno’s conclusion: ‘Anger at being treated unfairly or in response to broken trusts is in our DNA; it’s who we are’ (loc.cit. 801).

When does trust develop?
Harvard University researchers working with infants and young children ascertained how early and how deeply trust impacts on learning. Even before babies could sit up unaided, they sought to determine whom to trust. Before babies could talk, they already recognised fairness and co-operation. Before they turned three, trust was already influencing how they learned. By five, children intuitively favoured receiving information from people whom they perceived as experts (that is, trustworthily competent) over people they perceived as nice, even remembering the information for longer.  Hence, teachers’ competence and expertise are more trust-inducing for students’ sustained learning than affability.

Can trust be developed?
Trust is built through your own integrity, credibility, behaviour and transparency across time. For Covey (2004), trust is built by keeping promises and ‘actively nurtured with regular acts of kindness, consideration, appreciation and service’ (loc.cit. 2659).  Threats of punishment might prevent untrustworthy behaviour in the moment, but they can be counterproductive in the long term as they reduce the belief that everyone is intrinsically motivated to be honest (DeSteno, 2014c). Issues of trust permeate our lives and actions more than we realise.

Alerts about misplacing trust in online exchanges have been issued for as long as the Internet has been operational. Whether ascertaining the credibility of web sites or remaining skeptical of the authenticity of an identity, adults, as well as children, know to exercise wariness. Yet numerous scams reveal the reality of untrustworthy individuals and their too-trusting victims. DeSteno’s team found that people who meet others face-to-face for the first time have a higher chance of ascertaining the others’ trustworthiness than those engaging online. DeSteno’s research into non-verbal cues showed that identifying a configuration of four bodily movements was more strongly predictive of untrustworthiness than one cue alone, so face-to-face meetings were best.

Towards a culture of trust
Now mindful of the layers of meaning of ‘trust’, I return to the significance of Covey’s ‘key’, ‘glue’ and ‘root’ metaphors (2004) and DeSteno’s research findings on the essentials of trust for success in learning and interpersonal relationships (2014b). How can we leverage trust in our School community? Evidence suggests that nurturing our relationships, fostering a culture of trust, and building integrity and expertise are all critical elements.

One step towards embracing a culture of trust this year has been the framing of Open Doors by the Centre for Professional Practice. Teachers invite a colleague into their classrooms for targeted professional learning opportunities about how best to help students learn.  Their ensuing collegial conversations about this shared, trusted experience help the growth of their professional relationships and expertise, and ultimately the strength of the School learning community.  Modelling relational strength and scholarly practice, the teachers exemplify Howard Gardner’s notion of a scholarly community (Euler, 2015) to solidify our culture of trust.

Now when someone says, ‘Trust me’, perhaps you might think of core values, economic drivers, scientific research or cultures of trust.


Covey, S. R. (2004, Kindle edition). The 8th Habit: From effectiveness to greatness. New York, NY: Free Press.

Covey, S. M. R. (2008a). Transcript: Trust as an economic driver. Forbes Magazine, 16 June. Retrieved 16 March 2015 from

DeSteno, D. (2014a). Scholars Seminar: Professor David DeSteno. Retrieved 14 April 2015 from

Euler, J. (2015). A scholarly community. Grammar Gazette, 25, Autumn, pp. 2–3.

Green, C. (2000). Trusted Advisor. Retrieved 15 May 2015 from